KLAATU YOU (43)
October 21, 2020
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite pre-Star Wars science fiction movies.
DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | d. MIKE NICHOLS | 1973
There is no getting around the fact: dolphins sound funny. Their clicks, their nattering, their squees. Slowed down for basic human speech, these aquatic mammals sound even funnier. Think “helium addict discovering vowels,” and you begin to understand how firmly Buck Henry held tongue in cheek with his screenplay for The Day of the Dolphin. This 1973 movie has all of the period trappings of a Nixon-era conspiracy thriller. There’s a covert animal project, covert academics in league with a shady government. A young Paul Sorvino crusades as a journalist to tell the real story behind talking dolphins. The plot is well-paced and suspenseful.
And yet the high-pitched, Teletubby dolphin vocabulary is so naïve, it’s an irruption of wholesomeness in what would otherwise be a dark surveillance state piece. The mix of kindergarten fish linguistics and media conspiracy are a knife’s edge that Mike Nichols expertly balances all the way through. Without giving too much away, Nichols and Henry are masters at setting up story. We see how dolphins understand shapes, see banks of reel-to-reel tapes that cover four years’ worth of language instruction. Most of the movie is shot on an isolated set, a lab on an island, that makes the hot-house plot believable.
Which makes the sight of George C. Scott (one of America’s best and most intense method actors,) talking to a dolphin even funnier. Scott is a perfect stubborn scientist, almost cruel in his insistence that Alpha, the talking animal, not revert to dolphin patois. The actor believably carries the weight of forestalling the outside world, intent on using Duolingo-ready dolphins for malign state purposes.
But Scott is still delivering gruff real talk to a dolphin, one who sounds like he should be entertaining at a child’s birthday party. Dialog has to return to the dolphins because the plot hinges on successful communication with a fish-toddler. By Act III we are on Scott’s side again, eager to help save finny friends from Feds who plant bugs. Boat chases, seaplane chases; they’re all as crisply edited as a Buster Keaton silent short. A person could watch this movie without sound, never have to hear man or fish talk, and still understand what was going on.
But you want to. You want to hear Alpha the Dolphin proudly say, “Fa!” “Pa!” “love!” “hand!” In one scene, Scott dresses down a visiting academic for lying about a nearby shark; the dolphins panic because they have never been lied to before. In that moment you realize that dolphin talk is the sound of innocence itself. Sweet and wholesome in a time of Watergate-era corruption, nobody wants craven human ambition to spread. Get the hell out of Dodge. Don’t rescue mankind, fallen down the well. If I could speak to a dolphin, I would still say the same thing.
KLAATU YOU: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Matthew De Abaitua on ZARDOZ | Miranda Mellis on METROPOLIS | Rob Wringham on THE INVISIBLE MAN | Michael Grasso on THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN | Gordon Dahlquist on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | Erik Davis on DARK STAR | Carlo Rotella on THE OMEGA MAN | Madeline Ashby on KISS ME DEADLY | Adam McGovern on SILENT RUNNING | Michael Lewy on THIS ISLAND EARTH | Josh Glenn on WILD IN THE STREETS | Mimi Lipson on BARBARELLA vs. SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | Vanessa Berry on THE FLY | Lynn Peril on ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN | Peggy Nelson on SOLARIS | Adrienne Crew on LOGAN’S RUN | Ramona Lyons on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH | Kio Stark on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Dan Fox on FANTASTIC PLANET | Chris Lanier on IKARIE XB-1 | Devin McKinney on IDAHO TRANSFER | Mark Kingwell on THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO | Luc Sante on THE TENTH VICTIM | William Nericcio on DEATH RACE 2000 | Rob Walker on CAPRICORN ONE | Gary Panter on ANGRY RED PLANET | David Levine on THE STEPFORD WIVES | Karinne Keithley Syers on ALPHAVILLE | Carolyn Kellogg on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE | Sara Ryan on ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN | Lisa Jane Persky on PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE | Adam Harrison Levy on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES | Gerald Peary on CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON | Susannah Breslin on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE | Seth on WAR OF THE WORLDS | James Hannaham on GOJIRA/GODZILLA | Lydia Millet on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED | Matthew Daniel on FANTASTIC VOYAGE | Shawn Wolfe on ROLLERBALL | Erin M. Routson on WESTWORLD | Marc Weidenbaum on COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT | Neil LaBute on 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA | Vicente Lozano on DAY OF THE DOLPHIN | Tom Roston on SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE | Katya Apekina on A BOY AND HIS DOG | Chelsey Johnson on THE BLOB | Heather Kapplow on SPACE IS THE PLACE | Brian Berger on THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS | Anthony Miller on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.
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